The Killer Shrews (1959)
Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
Fearsome mutants with nasty big pointy teeth! An island overrun with giant, hundred-pound vermin hungry for human flesh! Two to three hundred monsters run wild! Or…five. Yeah, five. That’s about right. Ummm…and about them weighing upwards of a hundred pounds? I’d hazard more like thirty. Thirty-five, tops. But, hey! There’s lightning! Everybody’s afraid of lightning, right? Right?
Such is the level of terror you can expect from The Killer Shrews (1959), a piss-poor science-gone-wrong flick that fails to deliver on the promise of man-eating creatures with a poisonous bite. The R.O.U.S.’s from The Princess Bride (1987) are more frightening than these things. What are they? Supposedly, they are shrews who’ve grown huge and vicious thanks to a very misguided and confusing scientific experiment. Upon closer inspection, they actually appear to be, according to Gunsmoke’s own Ken Curtis: “dogs covered in shag carpet.” A shrew, by the way, is not even a particularly scary creature to begin with, so why use that as your main villain? At least the Germans try to hide the little bastards’ presence until you buy your ticket. Their title is Die Nacht der unheimlichen Bestien, which of course translates into The Night of the Scary Beasts. Better title, by far.
Financed by quintessential ‘Rich Texan’ Gordon McLendon (who also plays nerdy assistant Dr. Baines) and directed by ace photographic effects artist Ray Kellogg, the film was made to be released as a double feature with The Giant Gila Monster (1959), another Kellogg-McLendon venture. McLendon was nothing if not ambitious. By presenting the two films as a package deal, he reaped the benefits when he “quintupled his money in profits” on an initial $125,000 investment. The films are unique due to their national distribution when most movies of its ilk received only regional showings. I’m dubious whether audiences felts thrills and/or chills from these movies, but somebody went and saw them.
A narrator (McLendon, again) informs us that a new specie...yes, you read that right, has been created. Specie, eh? Doing a quick search, species is definitely to be used in both the singular and plural form. Specie, it ironically turns out, means ‘money in the form of coins rather than notes.’ I assume that McLendon paid for the movie in quarters, which makes sense.
Cut to a boat heading toward an island. Although the sky seems clear behind the actors, when they look up, we get some nice stock footage of an ominous sky. Token black guy ‘Rook’ Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree) remarks to our hero, the stupidly-named Thorne Sherman (James Best) that there’s “a lot of quiet out there.” Okay… There’s a lot of boat jargon too, and some not-so politically correct dialogue from Griswold, giving an indication of the film’s feelings toward non-white characters. Sherman and Griswold are delivering supplies to Dr. Marlow Craigis (Baruch Lumet, the father of master director Sidney). We meet his zoologist daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude), super geek Baines, asshole Jerry (Ken Curtis), and later, dutiful Mario (Alfredo de Soto). They greet the duo with a shotgun, hopefully not meant for poor Rook, and Ann wishes to leave the island. The impending hurricane isn’t going to let that happen so they head off to Craigis’ compound, noticeably without Rook. This is pretty much the last time Thorne or any of the other very white characters acknowledge Rook’s existence. Their attitude? Basically, fuck him.
Best’s character is passive to the point of being tranquilized, but these new friends can’t stop themselves from telling him every little detail about their experiments. Even though Thorne really doesn’t care, Dr. Craigis explains his ambition to increase a creature’s lifespan because he’s worried about overpopulation. I’ll say it again. He wants to INCREASE a creature’s LIFESPAN because he’s worried about OVERPOPULATION. Does that make sense? No, no it does not. Meh, no matter because we’ve got bigger fishies to fry. The shrews they’ve been experimenting on have grown very big and very hungry. There’s a great deal of scientific jargon provided by writer Jay Simms, who would at least give the world Panic in Year Zero (1962), but it sounds like malarkey. The shrews can eat three times their own weight and will consume every bit of its prey. Unfortunately, they’ve set their sights on the humans as the last food source. Meanwhile, Rook is busy doing black guy stuff, I guess, and the shrews attack. We don’t get to see those deliciously horrible hand puppets from later in the movie quite yet. It’s just dogs, some say coon dogs, others Afghan hounds, chasing him around. The movie tries to cover the ‘underwhelming’ effects by adding a gnashing teeth sound on the soundtrack, but it doesn’t help. Rook has a gun for no good reason and while that “terrifying” lightning strikes, he hops up a tree and promptly falls out of it, giving the shrews their first decent meal in quite a while. Is Thorne or any of his other new friends concerned about Rook’s well-being after learning of the island’s dangerous residents? Not at all. Who’s Rook? Do you want to play chess or something?
Ann informs Thorne that he’s arrived at “a true fairy tale and you’re right in the middle of it.” I appreciated Thorne’s attitude in these initial scenes. He’s not interested in any of this science-y stuff and he just wants to go back to his boat. It’s clear Ann is into him but he’s not even putting the moves on her. Meanwhile, Ann’s former fiancée Jerry, whose very name conjures up Rick and Morty-level “Fucking Jerry” feelings, skulks around in the background, growing ever more jealous that his Swedish bombshell is putting the moves on some boat captain. Ann also informs Thorne that shrews are “the most horrible animals on the face of the Earth.” I think I could name one or twenty others that are a tad worse.
The shrews eat the livestock, consisting of one horse, apparently, and Jerry takes the opportunity to punch Thorne when he tries to investigate. They (except for Jerry) decide to follow Thorne’s lead even though he’s never been there and knows little about the shrews or the compound. They barricade themselves in but Thorne points out that the walls are adobe, which reminded me of the hilarious Adobe commercial parody on SNL about the “little car that’s made out of clay.” They keep watch in shifts and when Mario wakes up a drunken Jerry, it gets a little weird. There’s a homoerotic undertone to Jerry’s statements as he says to Mario, “I keep thinking about you and me.” Too bad Mario isn’t long for this world. A shrew gets into the basement and although Mario sustains a mere bite, he soon dies. The group had laid out poison a while back but it apparently just stayed in the shrew’s saliva, making their bites deadly. Hemotoxic syndrome, as Baines suggests. The doctor and Thorne discuss their plan for survival then decide to explain it to the rest, who are sitting less than five feet away and clearly within earshot of everything that was just said.
The night ends and they believe the shrews may not come out during the day. Jerry, ever the dickhead, double crosses Thorne as they make their way to the boat, but Thorne disarms him. They head back to the compound and Thorne finally gives Jerry a good beating. Probably the best moment in the film is when Thorne has had enough of fucking Jerry and prepares to feed him to the shrews. He’s talked down at the last moment, but it’s a decent enough scene. Jerry is really starting to lose it so you know he’s gonna screw things up. We keep seeing the awful hand puppets behind the fence or scraping through the walls, but there is one good scare to be had here. Ann opens the kitchen door and, crappy as they are, the unexpected rush of a killer shrew results in a decent jump scare and the end of Dr. Baines, who at least should have burned his wound or chopped his leg off.
Thorne comes up with an idea to build a makeshift tank out of steel drums. The shrews are practically through the walls but sure, we have time to weld. Idiot Jerry hops up on the roof with the shotgun and Thorne, Ann, and Dr. Craigis get under the tank. The shrews take Jerry down after he makes a break for it, ending up behind some logs where I presume they tore him apart with adorable doggy kisses. The survivors slooooowwwwllly make their way to the boat, duck-walk style, and the very light-looking drums now weigh a million pounds since Ann can barely make it. The film is desperate for any way to keep up the suspense, but there wasn’t any to begin with, so it’s a lost cause. They make it to the boat, Craigis says he’s not going to worry about overpopulation anymore, and Thorne makes it clear that he’s going to put a baby in the Swiss Miss.
James Best would go on to have a fine career, most famously as Rosco Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard, but he’d also do fine work in features like Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, Rolling Thunder, Sounder, and many projects with his buddy Burt Reynolds, like the fantastic Hooper, Nickelodeon, and The End. McLendon executive produced 1981’s ridiculous WWII soccer drama Victory but pretty much stuck to being a Texas businessman. It’s probable that the budget Kellogg was used to working with on major studio projects made him ill-suited to dealing with the difficulties inherent with low-grade Z pictures like this one. He was clearly a talent, but very little could have been done to make anything resembling a scary or even interesting movie with this premise and that budget. At least Jerry got eaten. That’s a plus.